Take Back Control of Content Rights with Forensic Watermarking

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Why content owners can’t afford to let content pirates get away with it 

There are more streaming services than ever before. Those creating or delivering content for these platforms are in fierce competition, which has driven up the price of both content rights and the amount of money content creators are willing to invest in production.

As in any conversation about streaming services, Netflix is the prime example. Its content chief Ted Sarandos told Variety that the OTT giant is tacking on an additional $1 billion to its budget for original content creation. This takes its 2018 plans for financial investment up to an eye-popping $8 billion.

So when distributing this content using the internet—whether via online platforms, mobile apps or smart TVs—allocating resources to protecting programming should be par for the course.

The Proliferation of Online Piracy  

With more money being spent, digital piracy is on the rise, destroying the idea of a return on investment for those creating or distributing today’s TV programming. While internet-led services have exploded into the mainstream, so has the ease of access to illegally shared programming.

A few years ago, pirates would have to physically record a film inside the theatre and then make VHS copies to sell. If five people bought and watched one of those tapes, the cinema itself, studio, or distributor misses out on revenue depending on their agreement.

But now, content distributors can now potentially miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of online subscription fees or advertising revenue. The most popular show in HBO history—Game of Thrones—acts as the perfect example of where pirates can take advantage.

The show’s season seven premiere was pirated more than 90 million times. This was six times the number of the 16 million views via legal channels. That’s a lot of subscription fees that HBO missed out on—something that pirates are only able to achieve because of the internet.

Is the Worst Yet to Come?

Moore’s law applies to all aspects of technology, including TV and film production. The jump from HD to 4K is happening much quicker than the one from SD to HD because the technology we use to create and distribute content has developed twice as fast.

But the downside to content distributors pushing 4K as a subscription bolt-on or a way to sell additional services, is that it’s a potential bonus for pirates. When content is pirated online the quality usually degraded. This has previously meant pixelated, poor-quality viewing, something that turns off would-be illegal streamers.

But if 4K is degraded, it’s likely to still be viewable in HD. And since the majority of consumers are still just watching content on HD devices and not 4K-ready ones, that’s entirely acceptable. This is especially apparent when you think that a screen needs to be at least 48 inches to see the difference between HD and 4K and so much content is being viewed on smaller-screened mobile devices. This push to create and distribute higher-resolution content is potentially creating an even bigger market for illegally-shared content.

Piracy On-Demand

The huge numbers of pirates and illegal viewers sharing and watching content fall into two key themes—on-demand piracy and illegal live streams.

The fact of the matter is that we, as an audience, only tend to watch specific TV live. And there’s no need to. A few years back, if you missed Saturday Night Live—that’s too bad. It might be repeated at some point later in the season but by then, you’ve missed the boat.

Now we expect to be able to watch TV when and where we want. And if on-demand content isn’t available easily and cheaply, consumers are quick to find a version they can watch illegally online or one they can find to download and watch at their leisure.

Earlier this year, viewers watching A Handmaid’s Tale in Australia using an online service that interrupted the show with inappropriate ads at the wrong times and frequently froze their browsers. This was quickly followed by a huge number of illegal downloads of the show simply because of the service’s faults.

While this instance featured an element of quality of service that needs to be improved, content distributors need to be able to protect their content so users don’t have an option to watch on-demand content other than through the official rights holder.

Illegal Live Streaming

The programming that audiences do want to watch live is perhaps subject to an even higher risk of piracy than content which shared on-demand. Essentially anything for which viewers want to avoid spoilers falls into this category and is under threat from pirates.

This is dominated by sports—something that is increasingly being delivered over IP as much as it is being broadcast through traditional means. At the same time, the cost of rights for live sports quickly dwarf those of production.

A few years ago, the UFC had a team dedicated to cracking down on pirates who were intercepting traditional broadcast feeds that come at a premium through pay-per-view, and distributing them online. With the growth of online delivery platforms, the practice of sharing premium content has become much easier for pirates. Therefore, it’s now more important that content owners protect their programming.

This is especially the case as online platforms, social media, and internet-only services are increasingly putting up the cash for a piece of the action. Last year, Twitter paid a reported $10 million just to air ten NFL Thursday Night Football games in the 2016/2017 season—a deal that was quickly surpassed by Amazon, which reportedly paid five times that amount for ten games this year.

With extremely expensive content being distributed by more online-only platforms, access to live video streams has never been easier for those whose goal it is to distribute programming illegally.

How to Protect Against Piracy

Clearly it’s imperative to protect content that’s being delivered to users through the internet—but how? With more video content than ever being delivered using a CDN, the best way to protect against pirates is using a content delivery network built specifically for the distribution of TV content. A TV CDN manages programming as part of a TV service, prioritising the quality of content and viewing experience instead of a generic CDN which simply delivers a TV program as traffic that needs to go from one place to another.

Within a dedicated network, content distributors are then able to deploy a forensic watermarking solution which lets them track content wherever it’s delivered. A pixel-based code is integrated into the program’s image and is unique to every single viewer. This means that as soon as a pirated stream or piece of content appears online, the owner can track exactly who stole and redistributed the program.

There are other options available to watermark content, like delivering content made up of two different versions of each three-second section of a program. While this will tell you where a program was leaked, it’s easily duped because you have to wait for the entire program to completely download or finish streaming before deciphering the code.

On the other hand, a bitstream-based solution means you can identify the culprit within around 15 seconds of the content appearing on an illicit site or platform.

Taking Back Control of Content Rights

Forensic watermarking plays an important role in the fight against digital pirates. Recent hacks of content for the likes of Game of Thrones and the continued increase in the price of rights and program production means it has to. We must put in place systems to make sure that content is protected. A watermarking solution of this kind gives the power back to broadcasters and content owners, letting them track down anyone who illegally streams or copies their valuable content. 

[This is a vendor-written article. We publish content from vendors based solely on its value to our audience.]

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